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What We Believe But Cannot Prove:
Today's Leading Thinkers On Science In The Age Of Certainty
editor: John Brockman
Pocket paperback £7.99

review by Alasdair Stuart

The result of a thought experiment, this book collects the answers each Edge member gave to editor Brockman's titular question. Edge, a group of thinkers encompassing scientific and philosophical disciplines as well as the arts is a fascinating organisation that includes some of the finest thinkers of the age amongst their membership. As a result, there's a dizzying collection of names on display here from every field of thought, taking in everyone from Richard Dawkins to Bruce Sterling. The end result is a fascinating book that is both intellectually demanding and remarkably accessible. Each member was posed the question and their answers are rarely more than three pages long, leading to a book packed with a huge amount of ideas in a very small space.

This is a book that positively encourages random dipping as the reader is almost guaranteed to find something unusual. The answers here run the gamut from theories about differences in Raven languages in different North American locations to countless approaches to breaking the light barrier, and whether or not we're truly alone in the universe. Each contributor is highly qualified in a particular field, and each is forced to move outside their comfort zone to speculate on something they can offer no proof for. The end result is a fascinating piece of intellectual tightrope walking, with some contributors hedging their bets and others jumping merrily into total speculation.

The book also neatly demonstrates the questions that still predominate in modern society. With so many members drawn from scientific disciplines, there's an inevitable skew towards rational views of the universe and, in some cases, outright hostility towards organised religion. In some ways, this is the book's only failing as several writers in quick succession score points off their belief that mankind will one day move past religion. Their beliefs are well argued and perfectly valid but organised in the way they are, they not only repeat themselves but smack of an agenda that the book could do without.

Ironically, this isn't true of the search for life on other planets. Countless different theories are put forward here both on why we are alone and why we absolutely cannot be and the end result is a dizzying array of ideas, all of which are as attractive and as un-provable as the next. My own personal favourite, panspermia (the belief that life was seeded here from space) is well represented as are every other stripe of the argument. Here, the combination of variety and uniformity works in the book's advantage, giving a remarkably well-rounded view of an extremely complex field.

However, for me, the best entries here are the most eccentric ones. The speculation about Raven language is one, whilst ways to beat the speed of light is another. Ultimately though, it's Bruce Sterling whose five word answer stays with the reader long after the book is finished: "We're in for climatic mayhem."

This is an incredibly demanding and incredibly rewarding read, a guided tour around the cutting edge of human thought that pulls no punches. However, if you're remotely interested in science, the arts, or human culture, then this is essential reading.
What We Believe But Cannot Prove

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